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Hockey In The Land Of Saunas

by Charlie Beattie / Minnesota Wild

Mieluinen jotta Suomi! (Welcome to Finland!)

Such signs have already greeted the Minnesota Wild, who landed in Helsinki at noon Central time on Friday for an early-season excursion that is one part cultural experience, and two parts business trip. The Carolina Hurricanes await the Wild for two regular season clashes later this week in Helsinki’s Hartwall Arena, but first things first: the saunas.

“I can’t wait to get into a real sauna,” says Antti Miettinen, one of a trio of Finnish Wild players leading the way through their home country this week. “We have saunas here, but an actual wood-burn sauna by the sea. It’s really nice.”

Indeed, the trip through an authentic Finnish sauna (which is slated for today) in Helsinki is without a doubt the non-hockey related highlight of the weeklong trip to the other side of the world for the Wild. Word has spread around the locker room, and players, Finnish or otherwise, have caught the fever.

“I’m excited for the Sauna,” says Cal Clutterbuck. “They’ve been pumping those things up for a while.”

Clutterbuck’s statement is hardly an exaggeration. The NHL announced that the Wild would open the 2010-11 season in Helsinki last February, and the thought has been on the players’ minds ever since, in some form or another.

“I was really excited, but I tried not to think about it during the season” says Niklas Backstrom. “Once the summer rolled around, though, you thought about more and more, and it seems like it came up pretty fast. All of a sudden we are ready to leave.”

Of course Backstrom, along with Miettinen and Mikko Koivu, are the primary reasons the Wild were afforded this opportunity. For the past few years the NHL has sent teams to Europe for opening series, and the league has carefully selected teams that feature players from their destination countries. Just like the Wild, the opponent Hurricanes feature no less than three prominent Finnish-born players in defenseman Joni Pitkanen as well as forwards Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen.

Those three players see big minutes for Carolina, and the same can be said of the Wild’s trio. Miettinen regularly logs first-line minutes alongside Koivu, who may just be the most complete offensive player of his generation of countrymen.

The trip will be a different kind of homecoming for Backstrom, a Helsinki native who started his career with hometown club HIFK, playing in their youth system before achieving success in both Sweden as well as Finland as a full-fledged professional before the Wild brought him to the NHL in 2006. The only player on either side who will see every minute of action in the two games should be able to do so under the watchful eye of many friends and family.

“It will be a lot of people who don’t get to see NHL hockey on a regular basis. That’s going to be nice,” says Backstrom.

Of course Miettinen, a native of Hameenlinna, roughly 60 miles north of Helsinki and Koivu who grew up in Turku some 90 miles to the west, are sure to have their share of interested onlookers. Koivu seems to be of particular interest, with his status as team captain and overall level of celebrity.

“Mikko’s always bragging about how he’s such a rock-star over there,” grins Clutterbuck. “We’ll see if he pulls through for us.”

Stars or no, the fans that turn out at Hartwall Arena aren’t necessarily Wild or Hurricane fans, so Miettinen adds an extra incentive to play well; win the crowd.

“It will be a little different for them, since they won’t be watching their favorite team,” he says. “If we play hard and play well, we can get them on our side.”

When asked if European or specifically Finnish crowds do anything differently, Miettinen added, “Not really, but maybe a little more chanting than over here.”

But for all the saunas and fans and rock-star treatment the message remains clear from the top down; for the Wild, this is a business trip first, and it won’t be remembered fondly if the team is unable to bring home some wins. Coach Todd Richards addressed the issue of focusing on two important games while facing the distractions of several new experiences in an unfamiliar setting before the Wild departed.

“You have to understand that they are a bunch of young guys hanging out, and that’s part of being a team,” says Richards. “They also have to understand that they are here to work and we have to do the best we can on the ice.”

To help break up the trip, the Wild have an exhibition game scheduled in Tampere, Finland on Monday. After that, says Richards, it’s all business.

“Once we get into that exhibition game, we’ll start preparing just like we are on the road over here,” the coach says.

The players, likewise, seem to know where there priorities should lie. “It will be nice to see friends and family, but the games are the most important thing,” says Backstrom. “For us, we look at it as four points. It doesn’t matter where we play.”

As far as Miettinen is concerned, being in a strange place to start the season shouldn’t be an issue for the Wild.

“You do all the same stuff. You go to dinner, and you go to a movie, maybe,” he says. “Just at the end of the day, you’re in Finland.” 

Part homecoming, part business trip, and part vacation; for the Wild, the flight to Finland is just the beginning to the journey that is the 2010-11 season.

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